Top Three Emerging Challenges for HR Leadership in 2020 and Beyond | Blog | MMA

Top Three Emerging Challenges for HR Leadership in 2020 and Beyond


Business Strategist
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Relationship Manager/Business Strategist
October 14, 2020

The Pivot

COVID-19 has transformed the business world as well as the economy.  Many thriving businesses have had to make a substantial pivot –from product to operations to infrastructure and even core business– with less people/human capital now moving larger mountains.  While some roles have seen significant dips in workload –front office, receptionists, administrative– other departments are receiving a substantial influx in workload.

There has been some upside to this “pivot.”  Many archaic pre-COVID business frameworks have been forced into progression: flexibility, remote working, adopting of digital technology to create efficiencies and eliminate paper.  Traditional barriers, however, also inadvertently helped to preserve a literal separation between work and life.  The pandemic has helped accelerate innovation and agility, but leaders and employees are now struggling with the blurring of work and life.

Departmental Divides

These shifts and separations are now influencing company culture.  Pre-COVID, many organizations used lunchrooms, office “collab spaces,” and conference rooms to promote idea sharing and organic conversations across titles and departments.  Companies are now finding virtual colleague relationships are starting to polarize into common roles and sectors.  While virtual happy hours and all-colleague calls can help to create visibility, many leaders feel it does not fully replace the in-person interaction and team building that took place in the office.

This “departmental divide” is even more evident in companies with a mix of “front-line” staff and corporate staff.  With some colleagues required to come into work while their corporate counterparts work from home, resentments can build.

Putting the Air Mask on First before Helping Others

Amidst these new emerging and pressing challenges, HR leaders themselves are also at risk for serious burnout, with many carrying a significant increased workload and burden.  Whether it is return to workplace, leave coordination, mental health, furloughing employees, being a full-time parent, helping an employee with an ageing parent, having an ageing parent, most of the business ‘pivots’ resulting from COVID-19 must be funneled through and worked on by HR teams, in addition to the core responsibilities that tend to peak in fourth quarter.

What the Experts say:

While the blurring of work and life, erosion of social interaction and increased burnout burden are complex multifaceted challenges, experts have provided guidance on how to deal with these specific issues.

Strengthening Remote Culture

Review Shared Values

According to Burnout Expert, Caitlin Donovan, culture and a sense of community or belonging is built upon “shared values.”  Many companies have shared or core values along with a “mission statement.”  It is important for leadership to review and reassess these shared values to determine the need for tweaks due to the new climate.  It is also important to incorporate “action steps” on how the company is solidifying and holding true to these shared values.  Reiterating commitments and communicating these values is also critical.

For example, if a firm’s shared value is “transparency” or “community,” it is important to look at how these values manifest in a remote work environment.  According to Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sandra Lewis, transparency and community could mean normalizing home-office interruptions, supporting and condoning mid-day trips to pick-up kids or take care of an ageing parent.  The CEO or senior leadership can share or participate in action statements around how the firm embraces this, like participating or starting a “story hour.” The story hour could include employees or employees’ kids reading to colleagues’ children once a week for one hour, giving working parents a reprieve and strengthening comradery while demonstrating the commitment to shared values.  The CEO could also provide several hours of free virtual tutoring for employees’ children during “Back to School.”  Tying these action steps to the core values can help solidify and strengthen the sense of community that might feel lost in a remote environment.


Output over Hours and Defined Metrics

With less visibility on employees, leaders and managers have to determine how to both monitor and measure productivity.  Due to constraints from the pandemic, employees may be working odd hours, popping in and out during the day or working more in the evening after kids have gone to sleep.

Companies and HR need to reassess and modify metrics for what performance looks like, many times taking more heavily into account the output of an employee versus the “hours logged”.  This may be a challenge if the right metrics have not yet been clarified or analyzed.  Softer skills like “Emotional Intelligence” will also likely play a big part in a person’s ability to adapt and address the changing needs of the business and employee population.

MetLife recently surveyed employers pre-COVID and post-COVID in an employee benefits trend study.  MetLife found that there is a correlation between strong employer support and employee engagement and productivity.  The leading drivers of productivity were: employee recognition, competitive compensation, and comprehensive benefits program.

Collective Grief and “Surge Capacity”

Understand the Stages of Grief and Acknowledge Them

An interesting phenomenon occurred during the pandemic.  Science and Health Journalist and author of “The Informed Parent,” Tara Haelle referred to this as “operating at surge capacity.”  In Haelle’s medium article, she expands on the concept:

In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using ‘surge capacity’ to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.”

The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” says Masten. When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?

Masten shares that the uncertainty and chronic stress can cause periods of burnout and that it is important to move from short-term surge capacity into a more sustainable mode of “coping.”  This method of coping requires the understanding of ambiguous loss, accepting that life is different right now, expecting less from yourself and recognizing the different aspects of grief.

Collective Grief

Donovan also shared the importance of acknowledging the “collective grief” that we are all feeling as a result of COVID-19.  Whether it is the loss of a family member, colleague, neighbor, contracting COVID-19, the loss of a job, income, or the loss of “normalcy” we are all experiencing grief and loss. 

Harvard Business Review interviewed David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on grief.  Kessler sheds light on grief as well as the concept of “anticipatory grief”:

Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

Find Balance in the Good and the Bad

Kessler states that part of managing all of this grief is understanding the stages of it: anger, denial, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance.  This does not all occur at once or in any particular order and it is even more critical to understand this in the workplace. 

Another technique Kessler shares is finding balance in the things you are thinking as well as coming into the present:

If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. We all get a little sick and the world continues. Not everyone I love dies. Maybe no one does because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.

Exercise Empathy

While many of these emotions manifest themselves at a very personal level, it is critical to have the empathy, emotional awareness and compassion to understand that any individual you are dealing with at any moment is going through this grief as well. Colleagues all have a different process and way of managing this grief and taking the time to be empathetic, patient and flexible with co-workers and direct reports is critical.

Train Leadership in Mental Health First Aid

According to QJM, An International Journal of Medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic has had profound psychological and social effects.  While we are still in the midst of the pandemic, current studies indicate that COVID-19 is associated with distress, anxiety, fear, depression, insomnia, chronic stress and substance abuse.  A recent MetLife survey showed that two in three employees are feeling more stressed than ever before in the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is critical for HR teams and leadership to be trained in spotting the early warning signs and signals of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.  MMA’s Clinical Consultant, Heidi Orstad emphasizes that this can be even more difficult to spot when people are working remotely. 

Mental Health First Aid Organization offers classes through their website.  Ginger, a behavioral health provider, also offers “STEP” a mental health strategy development tool for employers that is a great tool to use when thinking through the employer strategy holistically. 

COVID-19’s Impact on Attracting Talent

Whether making “Return to Workplace” optional, demonstrating understanding when cancelling an important meeting, or providing mental health assistance to employees, this type of empathy and understanding is also extremely important in attracting top talent.  According to Indeed’s “5 Recruiting Strategies During COVID-19”, candidates care a great deal about a prospective employer’s COVID-19 action plan as well as perks that support mental, physical and emotional health.

Blending Work & Life

Benefits Package

According to MetLife’s Benefit Trends Study, 60% of employers are struggling to keep up with the blended work-life world and four in ten employees are struggling to balance the demands of an “always on” work mentality.  With all of the emotions taking place amongst colleagues amidst this pandemic, increased importance has been placed on the well-being programs companies offer.  Roughly 80% of employees agreed that employers have a responsibility for their health and well-being.  Employees also stated the following would help ease their stress and improve their well-being if offered by their employer:

  • Financial wellness programs
  • Mental wellness programs (EAPS)
  • Life insurance
  • Disability insurance
  • Insurance benefits that offer lump sum or cash payments, such as hospital indemnity or critical illness insurance
  • HSA’s
  • Legal plans

Childcare Benefits Strategies

While a rapidly emerging trend, childcare benefits are a major need for many full time employees with children.  Consider offering these benefits or additional benefits like: on-site daycare, back-up childcare centers, childcare referral/navigation, childcare subsidies, enhanced leave policies, emergency debit cards, employee resource groups, and virtual tutoring. 

Education on Benefits Package

While there is no shortage of options and vendors cropping up to assist employers in stepping up to support employees, it is also just as important to make sure employees are educated on their benefits options, and empowered to make the best decision possible this open enrollment. 

According to a 2019 National Business Group survey on Health, the number one area employees want financial help with is health care and prescription drug costs.  Work with your broker or trusted advisor to incorporate decision support tools and targeted communications to employees on current as well as new benefits.

Be Flexible

One of the major areas that leaders and employers can stand out in, is the area of flexibility.  If roles/output are clearly defined, a company can focus less on the hours worked and more on results.  Understanding that parents will have to pick up kids from school, or assist in home schooling can go a long way in building loyalty and support. Exercising compassion during a time when major life events can come up much more frequently and accommodating these events is critical.

Opening and Closing Ritual

While the borders between work and life have quite literally disappeared, it is possible to build them back up again.  Donovan encourages employees to use ritual as a way to separate work and life.  By creating an “opening” and “closing” ritual, you can create a habit and signal to the brain when it is time to work and when it is time to unplug.  Donovan suggests something as simple as putting a scarf/sheet over a laptop at the end of the day, or start each work day after a morning walk in order to signal time for work and time for leisure.  Harvard Business Review also further covers the restorative power of ritual during the pandemic in this article.


Both Dr. Lewis and Donovan recommend breathing techniques to deal with acute moments of stress and anxiety. Headspace’s free premium content provides educational materials, breathing exercises, videos, meditations and PDFs for teams, employees and families.  Acupressure can also assist in acute stress and this guide from Donovan shares some the top pressure points to alleviate stress.

For more on virtual mental health first aid trainings, childcare resources, creative trends in benefits and perks during the pandemic as well as to attend roundtable discussions with peers, please reach out to Lauren Randall.